Duplication or complementarity? A comparative analysis of Human Rights Council and Third Committee resolutions

by Tess Kidney Bishop, Universal Rights Group NYC Blog, Blog, Instituciones, procesos y mecanismos de derechos humanos internacionales, Universal Rights Group NYC

In recent years, many have begun to take a closer look to the relationship between the Human Rights Council and the Third Committee of the General Assembly. As we near the end of 2020 now is an apt time to review the work done by both bodies this year and the level of efficiency achieved. Do these two key human rights bodies form a coherent whole, with each playing a clearly-defined and logical role in the overall UN human rights system? Or is the relationship more characterised by incoherence, duplication and contradiction? One way of answering such questions is to look at the degree of overlap between resolutions adopted by the Council and those adopted, in the same calendar year, by the Third Committee.

With this in mind, the Universal Rights Group (URG) has conducted a comparative analysis of the texts adopted this year in the two bodies. The methodology used for this assessment was the same as that employed for previous comparative analyses of the Council and the Third Committee covering the years 2018 and 2019.

In 2020 the Council adopted 97 resolutions (see URG’s reports on HRC43, HRC44 and HRC45), and the Third Committee adopted 50 resolutions (see URG NYC’s post session report). Of those 50 texts, 37 can be said to be human rights-related (adopted under Third Committee agenda items 28, 67, 68, 69, 70, 71 and 72).

The basic finding of the 2020 analysis is that there remains significant overlap between the resolutions of the two bodies, but less duplication than in previous years. 51% of Third Committee human rights resolutions in 2020 had a prima facie equivalent (judging by the resolution titles) adopted by the Council the same year. When looking at the actual content of these resolutions, we concluded 3% elaborated upon corresponding Council texts, and around 8% had significant overlap. No Third Committee resolutions human rights resolutions were functionally identical to (i.e. had the exact same content as) Council resolutions this year. In total, therefore, 11% of Third Committee human rights texts in 2020 had a high degree of overlap/duplication with corresponding Council texts. If one adds those texts that displayed a lesser but still some degree of overlap (i.e. more than 10% but less than 60% of content the same), the proportion jumps to 38%.

When compared to the same analysis which URG undertook for resolutions adopted in 2019, we find some improvement in reducing unnecessary duplication between the bodies. There is an even more significant improvement compared to 2018, which is worth looking at given the number of resolutions in 2020 that were biennial. In 2019, 60% of resolutions had a prima facie equivalent, and in 2018, 54%, as compared to 51% this year. As noted above, no resolutions were functionally identical this year, whereas 2.5% were in 2019, and 8% in 2018. In 2019, 7%, and in 2018, 8% of Third Committee human rights resolutions elaborated on corresponding Council texts, compared to only 3% this year. In both 2018 and 2019, 5% had significant overlap, while around 8% did in 2020. Overall though, the proportion of resolutions with a high degree of overlap was lower this year at 11%, as compared to 14.5% in 2019 and 21% in 2018. 2020 fared even better if one includes texts with a lesser degree of, but still some, overlap, at 38% this year compared to 48.5% in 2019 and 66% in 2018.

Overlap in 2020

The below graph illustrates the prima facie (i.e. resolution titles) overlap between Third Committee human rights texts, and Council texts. URG’s comparative analysis found 19 out of 37 Third Committee human rights texts in 2020 (51%) had a direct equivalent resolution adopted by the Council in 2020.

In detail, URG New York’s analysis found:

  • 19 of 37 Third Committee human rights texts focused on human rights issues had a prima facie HRC equivalent (judging by their titles). This corresponds to 51% of Third Committee human rights resolutions.
  • No Third Committee texts were functionally identical to a Council counterpart.
  • One Third Committee text (representing 3% of Third Committee human rights resolutions) was elaborated upon by its closest Council counterpart. No Third Committee texts were straightforward elaborations of their Council counterparts. 
  • Three resolutions (8% of Third Committee human rights resolutions) contained significant overlap with their closest Council counterpart.
  • Ten resolutions (27% of Third Committee human rights resolutions) contained some degree of overlap with their closest Council counterpart.
  • Five texts (14% of Third Committee human rights resolutions) contained no overlap or less than 10% overlap with their closest Council counterpart, despite having equivalence in their titles.

What’s the point? 

The level of duplication between the two human rights bodies gives an idea of the relationship between Geneva and New York and the efficacy of the UN human rights system. On the one hand, some key issues might be worth addressing at both the Council and the Third Committee. In the case of particularly egregious human rights violations or topics of concern, both bodies may feel the duplication of a resolution is a way to demonstrate unity across the system. The two bodies also have different relationships to other parts of the UN, so, for instance, while the Council might focus its resolutions on what action the High Commissioner for Human Rights or special procedures can take, the Third Committee directs more of its requests to the Secretary-General and specialised agencies. This would actually suggest coherence across the system. On the other hand, the high number of resolutions at the Third Committee makes it difficult for States to engage constructively with every resolution and topic and duplicative resolutions may be seen as unnecessarily adding to this workload. Resolutions that are prima facie equivalents but actually had no overlapping content (of which there were five in the Third Committee this year), may suggest incoherence between the two bodies on a topic.

The only type of duplication in which we saw a rise this year was among those resolutions with significant overlap (more than 60% of the same content) as their Council counterparts. However, this rise was coupled with a fall in functionally identical resolutions and those that simply elaborated upon their counterpart. The level of substantive duplication is therefore overall much lower than in previous years.

We can learn more by looking at some specific instances of duplication. Some differences represent changes in the situation to which the resolution refers over time. Several Third Committee resolutions included additional references to the impact of Covid-19 for example. Others reflect the different roles of the bodies, with a number of Council resolutions which were prima facie equivalent to one in the Third Committee, primarily concerned with the relevant special procedures while the Third Committee resolution discussed the topic more broadly. Both of these similarities seem to reflect complementarity between the equivalent resolutions. There were a number of instances where the Third Committee resolution expressed the same sentiment as the Council resolution but in weaker language, suggesting more genuine duplication but perhaps political differences between the membership of the two bodies. For instance, in equivalent resolutions on unilateral coercive sanctions (A/C.3/75/L.28 and A/HRC/RES/43/15), the Third Committee ‘Condemns the continuing unilateral application and enforcement by certain Powers of unilateral coercive measures,’ while the Council ‘strongly condemns’ it.

While it does reflect a trend over the past few years toward lower levels of overlap, the drop in duplication this year may also relate to the uniqueness of 2020, with the pandemic having a particularly significant impact on the functioning of the Third Committee. The Third Committee conducted the vast majority of its session virtually, only voting in-person, while the Human Rights Council was able to conduct much more of its work in-person. States in New York were therefore requested to rationalise where possible and present technical rollovers of resolutions. This resulted in fewer resolutions being passed in the Third Committee than in previous years and only three new resolutions being added. The lower level of duplication this year may partly be a response to this imperative, with States working to reduce the workload of the Third Committee. However, it was concerning to see that despite these efforts, there was some duplication within the Third Committee. Two of its three new resolutions were prima facie equivalents, both focused on the impact of Covid-19 on women and girls (A/C.3/75/L.6/Rev.1 and A/C.3/75/L.13/Rev.1). Looking at their content using the same methodology we applied to the Third Committee and Human Rights Council Resolutions, they had some degree of overlap (more than 10%, but less than 60%, of substantive paragraphs were the same). In debate on these resolutions, several States expressed dismay about this duplication.

‘Reopening’ the report of the Council 

Another tell-tale sign of the level of coherence in the Council-Third Committee relationship is how the latter deals with the annual report of the former. In that regard, 2020 was a positive year as there was no attempt to ‘reopen’ the report of the Council. However, while it was ultimately adopted, the report was put to a vote (115-3-60). Some States criticised or refused to recognise country-specific resolutions passed by the Council. Others objected to the fact that the Third Committee considered Human Rights Council resolutions only in a blanket manner. The resolution was subsequently adopted by vote in the General Assembly plenary, with a similar result (119-3-60) and minimal discussion.

For more detail on resolutions passed by the Third Committee in 2020, see URG NYC’s Post-Session Report.

For more detail on resolutions passed by the Human Rights Council in 2020, see URG’s Post-Session Reports and see yourHRC’s End of Year Report.


Featured Venn diagram created by Universal Rights Group NYC.